From "Eisenhower: The White House Years" by Jim Newton (Doubleday, $29.95)
May 1, 1958, was a fairly quiet day in the world. It was international Communism’s traditional date of celebration, and Moscow marked the occasion with a peace-themed rally in Red Square, presided over by Nikita Khrushchev and provocatively attended by Gamal Abdel Nasser of the United Arab Republic, ostensibly a Cold War–neutral but often a flirtatious friend of Russia. In London, Labourites hoisted a red flag, while in Nazareth, Moscow’s celebration of peace frayed a bit: eighty people were injured when fighting broke out after Communists heckled a group of labor demonstrators. At the level of diplomacy, the American secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, was pursuing an agreement with the Soviet Union to remove bombers and military bases from the Arctic; Vice President Richard Nixon was in Argentina for the inauguration of Arturo Frondizi, that nation’s first freely elected president in twelve years.
Dwight David Eisenhower, thirty-fourth president of the United States, spent the day at the White House, all but invisible to the outside world. He woke to a cool, sunny morning in the capital and had breakfast with members of his staff at 7:45 a.m. in the White House mess. He arrived at his desk at 8:36 a.m. Looking over his schedule, the president saw that he had a short workday ahead, with just one meeting of consequence.
Five years into his presidency, Eisenhower was in a slump. His approval ratings, which generally hovered between 60 and 70 percent, had fallen below 50 for the first time as the American economy slogged through a mild recession. Knocked down by a heart attack in 1955 and a hospitalization for ileitis in 1956, he was perceived by many journalists and much of the nation’s elite as ailing, ineffectual, and detached, surrounded by scheming, powerful cabinet members who carried out the nation’s work while Ike served as its benign figurehead, devoted to golf and bridge, manipulated by a coterie of shrewd businessmen. The administration’s response to the recession seemed to its critics lamentably typical. The House of Representatives that day passed a bill to extend jobless benefits, but the legislation represented a compromise— liberals had supported larger benefits for longer, while Eisenhower backed a more modest alternative. Eisenhower, one editorial opined, was confronting the nation’s economic difficulties “by the device of wishful thinking.”
Dissatisfaction with Ike was captured that year by Marquis Childs, an influential Washington journalist whose 1958 book, Eisenhower: Captive Hero, portrayed the president as indecisive and lazy, stodgy and limited by his military upbringing. “He is moved by forces,” Childs wrote. “He does not undertake to move them himself.” Ike, in Childs’s view, had fallen woefully short of public expectations for his presidency and had failed to marshal the powers of his office. For that, Childs concluded, “Eisenhower . . . must be put down as a weak president.”
That was Eisenhower as viewed by press and public — limited, captive, disappointing. But on this May Day of 1958, the President Eisenhower invisible to Childs, unappreciated by his critics, was at work offstage on matters of grave consequence. At 9:00 a.m., the president and thirty-four of his most senior and trusted advisers assembled for the 364th meeting of the National Security Council. The meeting opened, as it usually did, with a briefing on world events — updates on fighting in Indonesia and Yemen highlighted the report — then turned to a review of basic U.S. security policy, a matter that had been under constant consideration since Ike’s election in 1952.
For months, Eisenhower’s top aides had grown increasingly restive about the nation’s reliance on massive retaliation as the centerpiece of its strategy to contain Soviet and Chinese Communism. The threat of annihilation had maintained an uneven peace since the end of World War II, and America’s nuclear might had allowed Eisenhower to leverage advantage in conflicts from Berlin to Korea to Taiwan. But as the Soviets gained nuclear strength, America’s allies — and its military leadership — worried that the threat of retaliation was growing hollow. Would the United States actually risk its own destruction to deter a Soviet advance on Austria, say, or Berlin or Vietnam?
On that Thursday morning, it was Secretary of Defense Neil McElroy who opened the argument, noting that his Turkish counterpart had three times during a recent NATO meeting raised questions about whether the United States was actually prepared to live up to its commitment to its allies —“to resist a Soviet attack on one member of the Alliance as an attack on all.” General Maxwell Taylor, chief of staff of the Army, echoed those concerns, citing recent setbacks in Indonesia and the Middle East and warning that the Soviet Union was on the verge of achieving nuclear parity with the United States. Taylor and McElroy proposed to address what they saw as a dangerous trend by adjusting American security policy: rather than relying on the threat of massive retaliation, the United States, they argued, should develop a tactical nuclear capacity to fight limited wars. They acknowledged such a course would be expensive, especially if new, smaller nuclear weapons were to be developed even as the nation continued to arm itself with large deterrent forces. But Eisenhower’s top military advisers insisted that the price was justified; the survival of the Western alliance and, with it, Western civilization itself depended on it.
Secretary of State Dulles, Ike’s closest adviser, agreed with his military counterparts. So grave was the stress on American alliances, he said, that those nations who had bound their fates to that of the United States — many after long urging by Ike and Dulles themselves — would break away if they did not have better assurances that the United States would help protect them. It was thus “urgent for us to develop the tactical defensive capabilities inherent in small ‘clean’ nuclear weapons.” Although Dulles himself was a principal architect of massive retaliation, that approach to deterring war, he now argued, “was running its course” and would soon be obsolete: “In short, the United States must be in a position to fight defensive wars which do not involve the total defeat of the enemy.”
Eisenhower sat quietly as his top aides urgently pressed him to abandon the most fundamental security precept of his presidency, a policy deliberately arrived at beginning with a landmark, classified study in 1953 and patiently pursued in the years since. When Dulles finished, the president noted that he had a “couple of questions.” In fact, they were more in the form of observations. Eisenhower challenged first the utility and then the plausibility of shifting from massive retaliation to flexible response. The nuclear option that his advisers recommended, Eisenhower pointed out, would transform weapons of deterrence into weapons of war, from an umbrella shielding allies to a “lightning rod” drawing fire to earth. Imagine a Soviet attack on Austria, the president said. American repulsion of that assault would never take the form of a “nice, sweet, World War II–type of war.” It would be a fight to the finish. Tactical nuclear weapons would not change that; they would merely escalate conventional war to nuclear war and thus extinction. Massive retaliation, by contrast, was predicated on the premise that an all- out nuclear response was America’s only retort to such an invasion; recognizing that, the Soviets would presumably refrain from courting their own destruction.
Moreover, Eisenhower added, creating a new force of tactical nuclear weapons could only be accomplished in one of two ways. The United States could switch from building deterrent weapons to building tactical ones, or it could attempt to do both. To cease building large nuclear weapons even as the Soviet Union galloped to catch up with the United States was almost too perilous to contemplate, but attempting both also came with profound implications. It would require a stupendous increase in military spending, an idea that Ike had fought his entire presidency as he strove for balance between national security and economic stability. To reverse now would require the focused expenditures and sacrifices possible only within a controlled economy, nothing short of a “garrison state.”
Dulles fought back. America’s European allies needed at least the illusion that they could resist a Soviet attack, a defensive capability short of global nuclear war. Ike was bewildered. What sort of defense would that be, he asked, when 175 Soviet divisions confronted 6 Western divisions? Dulles countered that the United States was, of course, encouraging the development of Western forces, but the imbalance remained and, with it, the instability of the alliance. Pressing his point, the secretary of state remarked that he was soon to depart for Berlin, where he would perform the “ritual act” of insisting that any Soviet attack on that city be treated as an attack on America itself. Eisenhower refused to let that pass. He did not consider America’s pledge to the defense of Berlin shallow or illusory. Failure to respond with the full might of American forces in the event of a Berlin takeover, he reminded Dulles, would doom the city and then Western Europe. Western security depended on the existence of an American deterrent and the willingness to use it. Eisenhower dreaded the day that such a decision might be his, but he understood that to avoid it, he had to be prepared to order it.
Ike, whose temper could flare at times, this day chose to be gracious even as he was insistent. The discussion, he said, was one of the most important ever to come before the council. And the National Security Council’s strategic paper, known as NSC 5810, was worth all the other policy papers he had read in the past six months. He acknowledged that he and Dulles were on opposite sides of this crucial question and said he expected to keep facing these questions in the future. And yet there was no mistaking his resolve. Eisenhower’s top command continued to debate details, but Ike had already prevailed. He would not, then or ever, reorient American forces so that they might more easily fight a nuclear war. He would pay a political price. Democrats, including Senator John Kennedy, positioned themselves as the more stalwart cold warriors, more serious than Eisenhower about investing in national security and fighting Communism. They baited him for allowing a “missile gap,” for being too soft on defense. Ike refused to waver. He would check the Soviets where he could, roll back Communism when the opportunity arose, negotiate for arms reductions, fight relentlessly for peace, and construct an astonishing period of prosperity, stability, and freedom. Far from the caricature presented by Childs and others, Eisenhower was certain, resolute, and, though respectful of his advisers, commandingly their boss.
The NSC concluded its business at 11:18 a.m. Ike welcomed the mayor of Duluth and his wife and chatted with them for a few minutes. He conferred with his appointments secretary and a representative of the Secret Service. In the afternoon, he met with a representative of the United Nations on refugee matters, talked with a few aides, then hit a bucket of golf balls on the White House’s South Lawn. At 5:40 p.m., he called it a day.
The next day’s papers contained no hint of the NSC deliberations, barely any reference to Eisenhower at all. Publicly, he had conducted routine business during a quiet day at the White House. Privately, he had committed the United States to his precarious pursuit of peace.